Dharmayuddham begins with a young Vijay, a judge’s son being kidnapped and held hostage by a mobster.
With the judge refusing to give in to the mobsters, Vijay has to watch his father and mother being bludgeoned to death on a full moon night.
Murattukkalai begins with scenes of a jallikattu competition in the midst of the harvest festival to establish the film’s rural setting.
After smaller bulls are tamed, the biggest and most powerful bull in the village is introduced. The bull is seemingly untamable by other villagers.
Malaiyur Mambattiyan — After killing the landlord and his thugs, who had earlier burnt his family alive, Mambattiyan becomes a social bandit in the village.
Unlike films of the preceding era, films in the ‘AYM’ genre, like Naan Mahaan Alla, no longer ended with the reformation of the antagonists but their annihilation in bloodbaths.
Taking a cue from Hollywood action flicks, action films in the ‘AYM’ genre, like Manithan, ended with the violent and explosive death of the villain.
In Naan Sigappu Manithan, the government minister living a luxurious life, on the payroll of the mafia, helps the criminals escape conviction.
Thanikattu Raja, explores the connections between landlords and politicians, who together oppress the rural population.
In Neethiyin Maruppakkam, Vijayakanth plays Vijayakumar, a weak, cowardly, and easily bullied peasant.
Sattam Oru Iruttaraibegins with the murder of Vijay’s father when Vijay is a little boy. Vijay’s father had testified against a group of criminals and is shot in the eyes for being an eyewitness.
Sattam Oru Iruttarai was so successful that it inspired a remake in Hindi with Rajini in Vijayakanth’s role as Vijay. Slight changes were made in the script to allow Bachchan to make an extended cameo appearance.
The young slum-dweller Velu, played by Kamalhaasan, is tortured in prison by the police inspector Kelkar in Nayakan.
In Aboorva Sagotharargal, actor Kamalhaasan, who also wrote the screenplay, gives a unique twist to the familiar revenge tale. The vigilante is now a midget who is also a circus clown. Justice becomes a spectacle when the criminals are killed using animals from the circus and tools from funhouses.
With the lettering of its title card in blood red, superimposed on a hand-held pistol, Naan Sigappu Manithan, prepares the spectator for a gritty, gory and violent film.
A corollary motif in the “AYM” genre was that of a pathologically obsessive protagonist whose lost innocence festers into a need for revenge. This was first explored to some extent in Rajini’s inception as solo-lead in the rural melodrama-thriller, Bhairavi (Dir. M. Bhaskar, 1978) but with limited box-office success. It was the hit film Dharmayuddham (“Righteous War,” Dir. R. C. Sakthi, 1979) that best elaborated this theme and effectively inaugurated the “AYM” genre. In Dharmayuddham, the hero Vijay, played by Rajini, turns into a lunatic every full moon night because as a child he witnessed the brutal murder of his parents on a full moon night. While the audience is informed of this through the linear narrative, the adult Vijay does not understand the cause for his trauma until he finds out that it was the same mobster who also murdered his foster sister. An enraged Vijay hunts the criminal gang down to avenge the deaths of his family and exorcize his personal demons. This trope of a traumatized child growing up to seek revenge was revisited in Rajini-films like Thee (“Fire,” Dir. R. Krishnamoorthy, 1981), Mr. Bharath (Dir. S. P. Muthuraman, 1986) and Siva (Dir. Ameerjan, 1989) and in Vijayakanth films like Parvayin Marupakkam (“The Other Sight,” Dir. K. M. Balakrishnan, 1982) and Theerpu En Kaiyil (“Judgement is Mine,” Dir. V. P. Sunder, 1984).
The blockbuster Murattukkalai (“Rogue Bull,” Dir. S. P. Muthuraman, 1980) truly cemented Rajini’s status as superstar.[open endnotes in new window] This visually spectacular film juxtaposes the rustic beauty of the Tamil countryside against the atrocities perpetrated by a powerful landlord and his henchmen on the poor. Sundaralingam is a haughty and malicious zamindar out to eliminate an equally wealthy but simple landlord Kaalaiyan (played by Rajini), who avoids village politics and lives as a recluse. Sundaralingam’s devious accountant prods him to destroy Kaalaiyan by portraying Kaalaiyan as a threat to his zamindari power. After Sundaralingam and the policemen in his payroll frame Kaalaiyan for a murder he did not commit, Kaalaiyan escapes and becomes a fugitive on the run from the law. Driven by rage, Kaalaiyan clears his name and gets his revenge. The scenes where Kaalaiyan successfully engages in jallikattu (bullfighting) and numerous thrilling fight sequences made the film popular in both rural and urban areas. (Jallikattu is a popular rural sport played during the harvest season in Tamil Nadu, in which an unarmed participant must remove a bundle of coins tied to an extremely aggressive and powerful bulls by taming the bull.) Kaalaiyan’s fearless participation in jallikattu emphasizes his ferocious masculinity and signals the end of the castrated protagonist in the Neo-Nativity films. Murattukkalai has since acquired an iconic status and is considered to be a classic in the genre of action films in Tamil cinema.
After Murattukkalai, a new formula for heroism entered Tamil action film aesthetics. In contrast to the MGR film that centers on the struggle of the hero to protect the vulnerable, uplift the poor and emancipate society from social evils, Kaalaiyan’s struggle is a personal vendetta. Echoing similar shifts in Hollywood's modes of representation, the angry young hero in Tamil cinema “ceased to be a clear agent of the community” unlike the archetypal MGR hero who acts because he shares their values. Rather, this new anti-hero exists in a dystopic setting but survives because he sees through the political and bureaucratic fallacies upon which the system depends and acts out of a personal motive, which may unwittingly serve a social purpose. For M. Madhava Prasad, it is not identification but instead the dynamic of counter-identification evoked by the rogue Rajini-persona that distinguishes him from the law-abiding MGR hero, who battles to restore a better-improved version of the existing system. In the action melodramas starring MGR, the hero invariably establishes what is just within the system and thus affirms the current social order rather than advancing a critique of it. The new generation of anti-heroes in the “AYM” genre, led by Rajini, expose the political superstructure of the state behind the “system” as degenerate and incapable of delivering justice. The angry hero must now achieve his own justice and establish a new social order, independent of the state.
This does not mean that all the angry heroes in the genre become social bandits by default. Eric Hobsbawm coined the term “social banditry” to describe
Most of the vigilantes in the genre are neither considered as social bandits nor elevated to that level—as delineated by Hobsbawm—in their struggle against the state. The only exception is the protagonist in the action drama, Malaiyur Mambattiyan (Dir. Rajasekar, 1983). The film details the criminalization of a young blacksmith Mambattiyan (played by actor Thiagarajan), who massacres the village landlord and his henchmen, to avenge the murder of his parents by the landlord. Mambattiyan becomes a bandit, hiding in the jungles of the fictional hill area of Malaiyur, stealing from the rich to give to the poor and defending the poor villagers from oppression. The police, however, pursue Mambattiyan as an outlaw who must be caught. After Mambattiyan is killed in a gun battle with the police, he is venerated as a folk deity, who still continues to protect the village.
Another crucial disjuncture from films of the preceding era is that in the “AYM” genre, narratives no longer end with negotiation and the reformation of the antagonist. Before the “AYM” genre arrived, it was common for a malevolent landlord or usurious industrialist to be represented as repentant for his errors and turning a new leaf, or a smuggler being rightfully tried by the law at the end of the narrative. A new trend emerges whereby films end with a bloodthirsty denouement and the villain’s annihilation by the angry hero who acts as judge, jury and executioner. This recurrent patterning of the narrative around a violent dispenser of justice becomes a successful formula in the 1980s that exists alongside other genres like the nativity films, romances, family melodramas, comedies, cop films, and action comedies.
The definition of what constitutes the “AYM” genre can be extended beyond action films to include art films. This refers to films like Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu (“The Color of Poverty is Red,” Dir. K. Balachander, 1980), Nizhalgal (“Shadows,” Dir. Bharathirajaa, 1980) and Ezhavathu Manithan (“The Seventh Man,” Dir. K. Hariharan, 1982). Different from the commercial films that seek to provide wholesome entertainment, art films exclude such elements as comic interludes, fight/stunt sequences, cabaret dances, or stock villains. However, unlike other language film industries in India, in Tamil cinema there has been no split between commercial cinema and art or “parallel” cinema. Working within the same mainstream matrix, even art films have had to ensure some kind of commercial viability and so retain popular song segments. In the melancholic Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu, the lead character of Rangan (played by actor Kamalhaasan) has a postgraduate degree in philosophy but remains jobless in the city of New Delhi. Rangan’s anger against the political system that cannot provide jobs and a decent living for its people is expressed through his recital of the Tamil poems of early 20th century Indian nationalist Subramania Bharathi. The film vividly captures the penury that Rangan and his two roommates live in as they struggle for their next meal. Without recourse to sentimentality, the experimental films of the genre dramatize the harsh realities of unemployment and poverty in a world of broken dreams.
Besides the angry hero’s rage around which the entire plot pivots, there are other compositional elements that give a sense of coherence to the subversive functions of the genre. Central among these are the much-maligned figures of the politician and the policeman, synecdoches for a corrupt state. K. Naresh Kumar, argues that it was South Indian cinema that first introduced films with politicians and government ministers as the central villains and added vile policemen to the repertoire. This was a recent development because prior to the 1980s, there were almost no negative portrayals of ministers and policemen in Tamil cinema. Targeting the figure of the politician and the police for acrimonious fantasy suggests cinema’s alacrity in responding to shifts in mass consciousness.
Politicians’ corruption, as depicted in films of the 1980s, is an image that reflects many viewers opinions, which accounts for its popularity. The critique of politics evolved from satirical dialogues to a displacement of resentment onto a personified figure. An example of the use of satire in Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu is the scene after the protagonist Rangan and his roommates lose 100 rupees to the landlord. They bitterly mimic the political sloganeering of zindabaad (long live) and stage a mock protest in their home:
The clever play on Indira’s Congress (I) party name with other alphabetical variants emphasizes a disdain for democratic politics in India. Using satire, Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu suggests that factional politics are the root cause of poverty and unemployment. This intensified into a vociferous indictment in the rural drama film Thanneer…Thanneer (“Water…Water,” Dir. K. Balachander, 1981) based on Komal Swaminathan’s play. This film can be considered the cinematic moment after which the suitcase politician entered popular imagination as antagonist. The realism with which Thanneer…Thanneer “portrayed the pitiable state of the rural poor at the hands of politicians” compelled the ruling MGR government to try to ban its release.
After Thanneer…Thanneer, politicians were consistently lampooned as unscrupulous characters committing mass deception beneath their façade as public leaders. In Sivappu Malli (“Red Jasmine,” Dir. Ramanarayanan, 1981), Thanikattu Raja (“Lone-Forest King” Dir. V. C. Gohanathan, 1982), Sathyam Neeye (“You are Righteousness,” Dir. P. Madhavan, 1984), Pagal Nilavu (“Day Moon,” Dir. Mani Ratnam, 1985) and Oorkkavalan (“Village Guardian,” Dir. Manobala, 1987), the angry protagonists who had earlier been victims of the landlord-smuggler-politicians’ machinations, struggle to awaken the villagers’ consciousness against the rural power structures that oppress them.
In Neethiyin Maruppakkam (“The Other Side of Justice,” Dir. S. A. Chandrasekar, 1985) the government minister abets the crimes committed by the landlord who sponsors him. The more scathing representations from Oru Kaidhiyin Diary (“A Prisoner’s Diary,” Dir. Bharathirajaa, 1984), Oomai Vizhigal (“Mute Eyes,” Dir. R. Aravindraj, 1986), Makkal En Pakkam (“The People are on My Side,” Dir. Karthick Raghunath, 1987), Sathyaa (Dir. Suresh Krissna, 1988) and Urimai Geetham (“Song of Liberation,” Dir. R. V. Uthayakumar, 1988) unveil venal politicians and their hoodlums as the primary cause of social unrest and crime. While figures such as the landlord, industrialist, and smuggler still remain enduring villains, the politician as scoundrel has entrenched a new cinematic convention.
Similar symbolic assaults were often launched against the police, an institution that marks the legal state’s sovereign presence most widely in India. According to the Third Report of the National Police Commission more than 70 per cent of the public in 1978 believed the police to be corrupt as well as partial towards the rich and influential. The film Sattam Oru Iruttarai (“The Law is a Dark Room,” Dir. S. A. Chandrasekar, 1981) used this perception of the police and the law. The film’s title is a phrase from a popular dialogue in the Annadurai-scripted film, Veilaikari (1949):
Sattam Oru Iruttarai, depicts the struggle between a vigilante Vijay (played by actor Vijayakanth) and his elder sister Sheela, who is a cop, over how best to avenge the murder of their father and rape and murder of their sister when they were children.
Vijay justifies circumventing the law to his sister, who seeks to punish the criminals legally, by stating that the law and the police are in the “shirt pocket” of the rich. Through Vijay’s triumph, Sattam Oru Iruttarai celebrates the efforts of the vigilante while discrediting the work of the cop as cumbersome and slow. This binary was celebrated in other hit films like Moondru Mugam (“Three Faces,” Dir. A. Jagannathan, 1982), Sattam Oru Vilaiyattu (“The Law is a Game,” Dir. S. A. Chandrasekar, 1987), Manithan (“Human,” Dir. S. P. Muthuraman, 1987), Kaliyum (“Age of Strife,” Dir. K. Subash, 1988) and the dark comedy, Aboorva Sagotharargal (“Amazing Brothers,” Dir. Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, 1989) as a means of discrediting the police on celluloid.
The mounting distrust of the police in Tamil cinema since the early 1980s reached a violent crescendo in Nayakan (“Hero,” Dir. Mani Ratnam, 1987). Time magazine’s Richard Corliss praised the critically acclaimed Nayakan as a “terrific gangster epic in the Godfather style.” This classic Indian gangster film chronicles the mythic ascent of a poor Tamil immigrant Velu (played by Kamalhaasan) in the Bombay slums; he moves from tortured child to petty smuggler to underworld don and later ageing patriarch Naicker-Ayya. Despite evading the law throughout the narrative, Velu is finally killed by one of his own henchmen disguised ironically as a cop.
For Lalitha Gopalan, Nayakan exhibits a strong “preference for vigilante justice in the absence of the legitimate authority of the state.” In Nayakan, a “transfer of power” from state to subaltern is achieved through a violent ritual battle between Velu and the Hindi inspector Kelkar. Kelkar is depicted as a cruel cop, described variously as a mirugam (animal) or kaattaan (barbarian), who terrorizes the migrant Tamil populace of the slums. The confrontation between subaltern and inspector is staged in a past that is neither clearly dated nor stated, but Gopalan infers based on her study of the film’s automobiles and setting that it references the 1950s. Significantly, the narrative projects the anxieties of the present onto its imagining of the past. For much of the 1980s, cases of malfeasance like rape in the police station, police torture and inhuman jail conditions became widely publicized and debated. By building up intense hatred for the police and allowing Velu to eliminate them, Nayakan
The manner in which it undermines police authority establishes semantic continuity between Nayakan and other “AYM” films.
Explicit rape scenes are another important plot mechanism in many films in the genre paralleling an increased public awareness of rape cases and crimes against women. Chinniah’s study suggests that the violent exposure of the female body was incorporated into rape scenes to an unprecedented extent in Tamil cinema from the 1980s onwards, which she attributes to the staging of these scenes in the “AYM” genre. Chinniah also observes that films prior to this decade did have rape scenes but intercut these scenes with symbolic images of the act. The move away from theatricality to brutal realism coincided with the increased visibility of violence against women, brought about by the arrival of women’s issues into the public agenda. This came especially after the Mathura rape case (1979-1980) which brought crucial aspects of women’s oppression to the fore. Mirroring the court’s initial acquittal of the two policemen who raped a tribal girl, the way perpetrators of rape escape from sentence in films mobilizes the vigilante. who must act to punish with retributive justice where the courts could not.
Seen retroactively, Naan Sigappu Manithan (“I am a Red Man,” Dir. S. A. Chandrasekar, 1985) is an exemplary text for the manner in which all the basic conventions of the genre intersect in its diegesis. Based on the Hollywood films Death Wish (Dir. Michael Winner, 1975) and its sequel Death Wish II (Dir. Michael Winner, 1982), Naan Sigappu Manithan tells the story of a young Professor Vijay, played by Rajini, whose perfect middle-class family life is destroyed after his mother’s murder and sister’s rape; the sister then commits suicide. Because the thugs who committed the crimes escaped an earlier rape conviction through political connections, Vijay decides against engaging the law. He then becomes a reluctant, embittered vigilante roaming the city streets armed with a gun, hunting not just the gang that ruined his family but all criminals. After he eliminates the mafia responsible for crime in the city, Vijay surrenders.
Where Naan Sigappu Manithan deviates from Death Wish is in its unleashing of nationalist angst in a climactic courtroom drama scene. In Indian cinema, the court is a
All three realms converge in the film to inspire the angry young hero’s tirade against the state. In court Vijay testifies:
Such lines resonated strongly in a society where the judicial system was weakened by being privy to partisan politics and manipulated by vested political interests. By the 1980s, the question of whether the judiciary and legal apparatus were even capable of delivering justice became a matter of national concern. This situation was mimicked in films like Naan Mahaan Alla (“I am No Saint,” Dir. S. P. Muthuraman, 1984), Vetri (“Victory,” Dir. S. A. Chandrasekar, 1984) and Jallikattu (“Bullfight,” Dir. Manivannan, 1987) where the courts are helpless in the face of the political and financial prowess. In this way, the popular genre echoed popular sentiments of that era.